Democracy is not an easy thing to do. It is not something that can be implemented over night nor does the ability to vote mean that things will immediately turn out for the better. For democracy to work, institutions need to be in place and civil society must work together to grow something organically.
Notions of idealism have often ignored the fundamentals of rationalism and pragmatism. In effect, just because something may seem right, it doesn’t mean it is going to work. To a large extent, this forms the building blocks of modern Conservatism and many of the views of the 18th century politician Edmund Burke. Societies don’t become something overnight, they evolve through history and culture. The lessons of revolution and visionary leaders have often led to mass murder and the brutality of totalitarian regimes.
The problem with democracy is that when it is in place, citizens expect results immediately. Yet, when things don’t, old habits often die hard. One only has to look at Russia. Western critics of the current Russian leadership may have some salient points regarding Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian style, yet let us remember that democracy as we know it has never existed there at all. Before Stalin and Lenin, Russia was ruled by hereditary Tsars. Authoritarianism and the security blanket of socialism are the systems that Russians know; it may be some time before the framework of democracy beds-in.
The same can be said of South Africa. The pressure for the country to flourish remains intense, almost on the verge of burdensome. The peaceful legacy of Nelson Mandela’s leadership was a platform for countries overcoming long legacies of discrimination to aspire to, any step backward is deemed a desecration of Mandela’s legacy
The current crisis involving the South Africa questions not only the stability of the economy, but the essence of its democracy. The shooting and subsequent killings of protesting miners at a platinum mine near Rustenburg asks not only questions of the police, but questions about politics and society.
Since 16 August, South Africa’s platinum mines have become inoperable. Mass demonstrations by several unions have prevented workers returning to the pits and have put future operations in doubt. The protests have continued to gain momentum and not just in Rustenburg, miners from across the country have joined in wild-cat strikes. The return of the banished former ANC Youth Leader Julius Malema has only stoked the fire further.
Malema is no stranger to controversy. A fierce critic of South Africa’s current leadership, Malema has openly stated his admiration and friendship of Zimbabwe’s ageing tyrant Robert Mugabe, discredited the Government of Botswana and called for the South African mining sector to be renationalised. The 31-year-old raised headlines initially for singing the infamous ‘Shoot the Boer’ at ANC rallies, Boer being the white farmers who settled in South Africa in the 17th and 18th century, now a looser term for white South Africans. In April 2012, Malema was finally banned for calling President Zuma a dictator. Yet, it does not appear to have curtailed his opinions. Malema this week was talking to the South African army, in what has been perceived as a threat to national security.
Whilst Malema’s rhetoric can be deemed as absurd and opportunistic, to what extent does it echo with many of the workers in South Africa’s mining community? Since the end of Apartheid, are they materially better off? Life expectancy has dropped to 52 years old, over a tenth of the population is living with HIV, on top of poor educational standards, crime remains an inherent problem with high murder and violent crime rates. Figures also put the unemployment rate at 25%, though many believe it to be around 40%. Has freedom from Apartheid brought opportunity? For the masses living in black townships, how many would argue that much has changed?
Whilst many poor black South Africans have suffered, the political elite have prospered. 100 years since the ANC was born, to what extent does it really represent its constituents? Why has it introduced a secrecy law that critics believe to be akin to Apartheid-era politics. Why were the miners in Rustenburg arrested under an obscure Apartheid law?
South Africa has struggled like any country whilst it attempted to re-emerge from its bleak past. South Africa is held up as a beacon because what was enshrined in its constitution made it the world’s most equal society. Yet the strikes and gaps in wealth tell another story. A new black elite has managed to develop from the seeds of freedom. From what should have been an opportunity for liberation and new beginnings has led to greed, corruption and a failure of the masses. Whilst the miners may return to work this week, what remains is a seriously inequal society and the fault lines that will only become wider.